The kid in the little pickup with the hay bales in the back and the girlfriend at his side was backing up traffic on Highway 16 coming into Custer.
But he wasn’t budging from his place halfway onto the road shoulder, not until the last vehicle with the flashing hazard lights and solemn faces had passed.
Other cars and pickups and vans had shown the proper respect for our line of slow-moving vehicles as we followed the Custer County Sheriff’s pickup and the McColley’s Funeral Home hearse up the highway from St. John the Baptist Catholic Church toward the cemetery on the hill.
One by one the vehicles coming toward us pulled over as we approached. And they didn’t resume their travels until the hearse transporting the mortal remains of my cousin, Eileen, and the first few cars carrying her immediate family had passed.
That was enough, that brief showing of respect. It is as common here in South Dakota as the friendly waves between drivers who know each other, or not, on rural roads and highways.
It might be common elsewhere, too, I don’t know. I don’t know much about elsewhere. But I know it’s a natural inclination and cultural expectation here.
A life has ended, after all. We take a moment to observe and honor that.
But a moment wasn’t quite enough for some of the drivers, including the kid in the pickup. Traveling near the end of the procession, I got to watch him sit there idling in the gently falling snow until the last of the flashing lights had passed. And so did the cars waiting behind him.
If you can see the human spirit reflected in a human face by a glimpse through waving windshield wipers and a half-fogged windows, then I saw it in that kid’s face — a kid I didn’t know, who likely never knew my cousin.
A “kid,” I say, even though he was probably 20 or so. And a face, I say, reflecting a gesture of respect that I have seen more times than I can count during my 66 years as a South Dakotan who never lived anywhere else.
It’s the kind of thing that keeps me tethered here, despite unpleasantries like the abusive weather and uncongenial wages. It’s the kind of thing that lived in my cousin Eileen’s heart through most of a lifetime spent elsewhere. Then it brought her home for good just a few years before she died, at 71, the day after Christmas.
This place is the home of dreams fulfilled for Eileen and her family. She was still a kid in 1960 when her dad, my Uncle Milo Kistler, moved their family from a farm two miles north of our place in Lyman County to a little ranch northwest of Custer.
Milo had already cultivated a life in the drought-prone, wind-blown prairie out near the 100th Meridian. Yet he imagined a more verdant world, one he could love completely. He found it on that little Custer County ranch, which fed and inspired his family and left flatlander cousins standing in slack-jawed awe.
Such a place sticks with you. And it stuck with Eileen enough for her to reshuffle retirement plans and return here for her final years, embraced by family and friends and the beloved landscape of her youth.
Gone too soon, she was remembered with tears and laughter last week by those who knew and loved her. And she was honored, if only in passing, by those who did not.
That’s just what we do. That’s just who we are.